Tim Kreider Debunked: In Defense of the Busy Trap


There exists a misconception that work and life are two separate parts of a zero-sum game – by voluntarily taking on work and obligations, one negates the ability to “have a life.” Thus, when Tim Kreider condemns busyness in the New York Times column "The 'Busy' Trap" as “a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness,” the internet exploded. The article went viral. I, however, belong to the camp of American author Chris Guillebeau who said, “Balanced people don’t change the world.” Work-life balance is subjective; balanced people might not even be happy.

Different generations view work differently. Older generations view employment as security and foundation for a happy family and well-educated children. Thus, when a response to the busyness complaints is, as Kreider discusses, “Better than the opposite,” the implied attitude is by virtues of being employed alone, one must be happy. Such notion contrasts with the current viewpoints of 79% young people age 18-24 and 66% age 25-34 who consider jobs and careers that “benefit the society” as the most important things in life. In other words, work should be fun and meaningful. Hence Kreider’s criticism is outdated to the labor forces of 21st century.

Just as Kreider offers the common viewpoint that work is somehow separated from “life,” he also glorifies the past, the unsupervised, unstructured three hours every afternoon of the latchkey generation as he remembers it. What Kreider inadvertently argues for is parental negligence. In fact I could hear my mother explaining her choices of my childhood’s extracurricular activities with the exact same reason: “Because as a member of the latchkey generation, I had to cook and take care of my four younger siblings. After school, we had nothing to do but playing in our back yard.” Well-structured balance in learning and playing, not the type of unguided free time that Kreider promotes, is important for children to grow.

The problem in our modern world isn’t busyness but rather busyness without purposes. Although it is nice to go out with friends once in a while, most people do not go out to the café every night with a big circle of friends like Kreider’s artist friend. Most of us want to do something with our lives and some avoid answering such question by hiding behind the pretense of self-importance and sheer busyness . The solution is integrating one’s life purposes into one’s professional life, finding the “convergence between what we are passionate about that other people are also passionate about (and willing to spend money on).”

Work-life balance does not exist. There are only personal priorities. When Kreider’s friend chooses work over spending time with him, it speaks more for where Kreider places on the friend’s priorities than for his happiness. (I suppose, as long as the friend isn’t giving similar responses to his family, there is nothing wrong about turning down a friend’s invitation to hang out.) 

On his deathbed, Kreider might prefer to “have one more beer with Chris, another long talk with Megan, one last good laugh with Boyd” but on mine, I rather say by working with Chris, Megan and Boyd, we have come closer to our shared visions and made each other’s life a little bit more meaningful. And boy, did we have fun!